David Shariatmadari has another interesting linguistics-related piece in the Guardian that begins:
Scientists have just published a startling analysis of commonly used words in 4298 languages (62% of all those spoken). They wanted to find out if there were associations between particular sounds and meanings that couldn’t be put down to the fact that the languages were related, are used close to one another, or to chance.
As it turned out, they detected strong correlations between sounds and meanings that were independent of genetic relationship, borrowing or coincidence. For example, words for “small” often contained high front vowels (roughly, “ee” as in “peak” or “see”); words for “round” and “red” were linked to “r” sounds; words for “star” to “z” and words for “full” to bilabial consonants (“p” and “b”). Associations were found for body parts: “tongue” was correlated with “l” and “nose” with “n”. Remember, these similarities were found in languages as distant from one another as English and Tagalog, Yoruba and Mandarin.
Why does this matter? One of the first things a student of linguistics learns is that the relationship between the signifier (the sound of a word) and the signified (the concept it represents) is arbitrary. We use the word “tree” to signify a plant with a trunk and leaves, but there’s nothing particularly tree-like about the combination “t-r-e-e”. If a law was passed saying we had to call it “frave” instead, that word would gradually become normal, just like “ki” is for Japanese speakers and “umthi” for Xhosa. […]
Damian Blasi and his colleagues focussed on 30 fundamental concepts – none of which represent loud or distinctive noises, often fertile ground for onomatopoeia. These came from the famous “Swadesh list” of 100 basic words, and included “bite”, “drink”, “ear”, “leaf”, “we”, “tooth”, “skin”, “one” and “stone”. Incredibly, as well as positive links, they uncovered sets of sounds these words seem to “avoid” – ones that appear much less often than you would expect if it were down to chance. “Water” (strangely enough for English speakers) seems to avoid the “t” sound. Words for “tooth” avoid “b” and “m”. The “a” “h” and “r” sounds are found less commonly in words for “breasts”.
The study builds on earlier research which hinted at non-arbitrary relationships between sound and meaning. For example, people have been able to successfully pair up words that have opposite meanings in languages they don’t know. One study showed that English speakers could make better-than-chance guesses at the concreteness of unfamiliar foreign words – that’s to say, whether a word might mean something like “car” versus something like “happiness”. Intimations, if you like, of a universal language of sound.
I don’t know how seriously to take any of this, but it’s certainly food for thought. Thanks, Trevor!